Mark Twain and the German Language

Photograph of Mark Twain

Mark Twain and the German Language

One hundred and seventy eight years ago this month, American humorist, journalist, and author Mark Twain was born. By the time he passed away 74 years later, he had published some of the most famous—and cutting—satires of the German language ever written.
by Nicolette Stewart

Twain is most famous for his novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both of which are still read by school children around the world.  In his lifetime he wrote 28 books and numerous short stories.  He also enjoyed sketching.

Twain also travelled extensively around Europe and Germany in particular, trips that he humorously documents in both The Innocents Abroad (1869) and A Tramp Abroad (1880).

A Tramp Abroad follows Twain and his companion Harris through German castles, to the fencing clubs of Heidelberg, and up a Swiss Alp.  The trip is meant to be a walking tour of Europe so, true to Twain’s satirical style, Twain and Harris avoid walking at all costs.  They’d rather take the train or have another beer on the sunny hotel terrace.

Those who have spent time learning the German language will particularly enjoy the chapter about German grammar, wherein Twain pokes fun of everything from the length of German sentences and compound nouns to verb placement and noun gender.

“Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”  You can read the entire text here

Twain, who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, chose his pen name from the Mississippi river boats on which he worked as young man.  “Mark twain” was a phrase used on river boats to signal that the water is twelve feet deep and it is safe to proceed.

Though he had worked as a journalist for some time before, The Innocents Abroad was his first book—and it was considered a best seller.  Today, over one hundred years after his death, his titles are still household names.

Read more of Twain’s witticisms about the German language here.

by Nicolette Stewart